Our view: Treat all school districts fairly

Published: Friday, Aug. 4, 2017 11:40 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017 10:10 a.m. CDT
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner discusses Senate Bill 1 with the Northwest Herald editorial board and Shaw Media reporters Thursday in Crystal Lake. The bill would rewrite Illinois’ Broken Education Funding Formula. — H. Rick Bamman – hbamman@shawmedia.com

A truly fair system for funding Illinois public schools should include all of the state’s school districts, including Chicago. 

The Democrats who control the Illinois Legislature don’t see it that way, however. 

A new school funding proposal, the Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act, or Senate Bill 1, has been created in part using recommendations from a bipartisan commission that met for 18 months. It calls for a formula that uses 27 components to ensure that school districts with lower funding levels receive more state aid, without penalizing wealthier districts. 

Although there is agreement on much of the bill’s provisions, the plan passed in May on an almost party-line vote, because rather than treat Chicago Public Schools the same as the rest of the state, SB 1 calls for a $250 million block grant to the city’s schools. It also calls for a $221 million payment to CPS to help bolster its pension fund. 

Democrats expected a veto of the legislation and again are following House Speaker Michael Madigan’s playbook: Create a crisis in order to pressure opponents and get the best deal possible for Chicago. 

The tactic worked to gain passage of a state budget in June, when the looming threat of the state’s credit rating being reduced to “junk” status, among other doomsday scenarios, provided enough leverage to persuade some Republicans to vote for a 33 percent income tax increase without any meaningful reform.

This time, the leverage is more than $6.7 billion in state payments to public school districts, some of which say they won’t be able to hold classes for long without the money. The first payments are due Thursday, a deadline the state seems certain to miss. 

Although the bill passed in May, it was not delivered to Gov. Bruce Rauner for two months, and Tuesday, Rauner issued a promised amendatory veto, striking the $250 million block grant, calling for the pension funding to be addressed in the pension code and eliminating other provisions designed to benefit CPS. 

Rauner claims that by removing the block grant and instead distributing it according to the new formula, school districts around the state will receive more funding, while Chicago students will receive a fair share.

The Illinois State Board of Education, which is charged with calculating the effect of the bill as amended, has yet to release figures.

The payment for CPS’ pension system could remain, Rauner said, but it would have to be included in the state pension code, rather than the school funding bill. 

Lawmakers will need a three-fifths majority vote to either override Rauner’s veto or uphold it. The more likely option is a reworked plan, hopefully one that will result from negotiated compromise. 

Funding for schools should be distributed equitably, and if the new formula works, then Chicago’s schools should get their fair share without special provisions. 

However, CPS also is losing enrollment – and districts with declining enrollment should receive less money. After all, we pay taxes to educate students, not to prop up school districts.

Democrats said Rauner’s amendatory veto would ignore the effects of the property tax cap on some districts, and would count the full value of property in tax increment financing districts, when school districts in fact cannot access that revenue.

Those factors merit consideration. So, too, does the tremendous property tax burden already weighing down many homeowners in Illinois. When Chicago gets special treatment, the state’s other homeowners have less chance of tax relief in the future.

Above all, we urge lawmakers not to submit to the squeeze play Democrats have devised again. Let the new formula they have devised do its work and equitably distribute money to all of Illinois’ school districts.